When Philosophers Were Kings is the Civil War saga of a Wisconsin family. Our country was only nine-four years old when this family history commences. It begins in Daingerfield, Texas in Northeast Texas, home of a troubled population in 1861, when the Federal Garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in Charleston, SC is fired upon. You will travel to Big Spring and Portage, Wisconsin on through to Baltimore and on to Bull Run, the infamous creek in NE Virginia that saw two defeats for the Union Army. You will see the battlefields of Perryville, Kentucky, Paint Rock Bridge, Alabama, Murfreesboro, Tennessee and Chickamauga at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. You will get a first-hand description of the Southern military prisons in Danville, Virginia, Libby Prison in Richmond and in Andersonville. The guerrilla conflict in Missouri during the Civil War is weaved into the story as is William C. Quantrill, the Confederate guerrilla chieftain. The Bushwackers and the Jayhawkers are also part of the tale.
Dr. Best and his family before him researched the Best family history and the roles played by various family members in the Civil War. The book explains the impact the events of the war had upon each of them. His family members did as many did in the 1860s-they left their hometowns for battle with cheering crowds and music playing. They carried their unit colors at Perryville until wounded or they were simply left for dead on the battlefield. For them the romance of battle quickly dissolved into a horrible reality of hate, blood, bullets, and death. Each was forever changed and that, of course, is true for any military person who has seen combat. Attitudes changed and even spiritual values were challenged. Best's ancestors came from good families-spiritually solid, morally upright, and socially responsible. In the end it was a strong family that proved to be these soldiers' best asset. You will feel the sense of loss that the family members felt after the battles in which their sons and brothers fought. Best's ancestors' personalities will come alive for you as he relates everything his research has revealed about them.
The information is accurate and comes from seven years of researching the United States National Archives, Union and Confederate Civil War military records, biographies, letters, diaries, and memoirs. Although When Philosophers Were Kings is a work of fiction, nearly all the events are true. It reads like a James Michener novel in that respect. Nonetheless, an author cannot know for certain how anyone, even his own ancestors, would have really thought or acted nearly 150 years ago. There is, therefore, dramatization of events to some degree. It is the story between the lines that is captured so very well by Best.
There is an interesting parallel superimposed on the story of the conflict. Best sets the tone for each chapter with quotations from philosophers, such as, Strepsiades and Socrates, and Greek proverbs. You don't have to be a philosopher to appreciate the motive behind this. However, it was Socrates, who said basically that until philosophers were kings and political greatness and wisdom meet, cities would not have rest. In the Civil War there were two kings, Lincoln and Davis, with two different philosophies. The Civil War was a time when philosophers were indeed kings. There are no familiar legends in this book and this book does not use nostalgia to whitewash the massive destruction and human misery that characterized the Civil War. Still this is not an anti- or pro-war novel. This book is written by a man from the North, who lives in the South, and is well acquainted with war and life's trials. The book doesn't take sides and draws no conclusions. As intricately entwined as the Civil War is in the story, the war is really a backdrop for this family history. It will be enjoyed by Civil War historians and by people who have only a rudimentary knowledge of this period of time. If you want an excellent chronicle of one family's journey, you have it with Stephen Best's When Philosophers Were Kings. It is flat out an excellent read.